What is Humanism?

I’m not trying to make a series of ‘What is…’ posts but these things are popping up in my daily treasure hunt in the jungle of RSS feeds I subscribe to. The gem I found recently was a post about humanism. You might wonder what that is. I know I did for a long time before looking for an explanation, so here is a summary:

1 a : devotion to the humanities : literary culture
b : the revival of classical letters, individualistic and critical spirit, and emphasis on secular concerns characteristic of the Renaissance
2 : humanitarianism
3 : a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially : a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason

Right! That sounds simple enough. You could even be an atheist and get into this, right? Well, usually this is true but not always. That is just about as clear as mud, so what do Humanists say about humanism. The answer to that little question is what inspires this post. Their answer is as inspiring as the definition from Merriam-Websters is clear. Lets have a peak at another post at The Friendly Atheist by Michael Werner who is past president of the AHA and remains active in many humanist organizations, so we can be fairly certain that he understands what humanists think humanism is. Turns out it’s not a new idea, stretching back to the early 1930s.

From his article is a sort of summary:

We now see human nature as having potential for both good and evil behavior. We now see human progress as elusive and doubtful in many areas. Still, we forge ahead, for what other reasonable choice do we have? No loving God protects us or metes out everlasting justice. Any progress is that which we create, finite and imperfect as we are. Any justice is justice we make. Any love we give is only given now. Any suffering is ameliorated by us, here and now. Only we have the power to create a world in which we flourish.

No shit? Was Captain Obvious a humanist? Perhaps in times past or through the blurry vision that many human preoccupations give us these things are not as self evident as the need for daily doses of food, water, sleep, and respiration but they should be, especially to an atheist. Describing yourself as a humanist atheist is like saying you are a human ape in my view. Perhaps that is harsh, but if you’re going to change with the times admitting that the premise of your ideals is self evident should prompt you to be a bit more industrious with your ‘community’ goals. He continues:

We long for a vital center to our lives that both grounds us and inspires us, a vision of grander authenticity to our lives and not just smaller truths. We long for an evocative whole story and higher vision that lifts our hearts and ennobles our lives. Some may find this integrated story for the future in the balanced humanist life of the here and now. To embrace humanism is to accept the exhilarating challenge of moving toward a responsible search — as the ancient Greeks did — for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Here we go. Something that makes humanists different from your garden variety flat-rate atheist: a longing for a vital center in life that grounds and inspires us. I don’t know about you, but I don’t long for anything even close to that. Those are some lofty goals. Personally I’d be happy to find more than a handful of honest politicians, never mind goodness, truth, and beauty. I’d settle for knowing I’ll be able to feed myself and get medical attention for the rest of my life.

Don’t get me wrong. I am inspired by the many great things that humankind has accomplished and will accomplish. I’m just a bit more into the graspable and technical side of this. Truth and beauty sound a bit too much like philosophy. Is truth going to feed my kids? Will beauty cure my diabetes? I think that makes me one of those people that fall near the ‘complete cynicism’ end of the scale. It’s not that I’m so cynical its just that trying to focus on truth, beauty, and hope for the future takes away time that I could spend working and planning for that future.

Right enough, I spend time thinking about philosophical matters and beauty and truth, but finding enough food and shelter to keep me and mine alive for a few more days is far more important. In these complex and fast paced times it is more difficult than you might first believe to find that food and shelter. At one time a slow rabbit and a cave would work. Today you have to worry about the economy, politicians, evolving job markets, the price of fuel oil for farmers and a billion other things that most definitely are not ‘truth, beauty, and hope’ in my view.

That brings this full circle, back to myatheistlife. So, you’re an atheist. Now what?

I don’t think that becoming a humanist as well is the next step. Not when they spend time stating the obvious like I’d somehow forget it, and as much effort to talk about truth and beauty as if these are needed; as if they are in and of themselves answers to life’s big questions. They are not. They don’t even acknowledge the big questions. To my mind this humanist stuff is just a bit too fuzzy and touchy feely, so lets add some definition:

TRUTH: Acknowledgment and acceptance of the fact that life is find food and water, sleep, wake up, repeat.

BEAUTY: Understanding that there is no greater meaning or purpose to life yet taking time to create meaning for yourself and those around you. A life that is entirely unappreciated except by a stray cat that once needed a meal and was given one is a life lived well enough. The act of helping another is beauty and gives meaning to all the rest of it from the participants point of view, even if accomplished only once in a lifetime.

VITAL CENTER: Oh, come on. Philosophers and nihilists and others will compellingly tell you that there is no such thing and cannot be. There is life and non-life. Everything else is subjective.

In myatheistlife view there is no searching. Truth is in your head already. Beauty is all around you and you are capable of creating it every day, everywhere you go. There is no need for a vital center, never mind longing for it.

… food … water … sleep … wake … repeat

Anything and everything else you do is icing on the cake of life. The only meaning that can be found now, or has ever been found is what you yourself ascribe to the small bubble that you live in. The meaning of life can be found everywhere. I found some today. With my first cup of coffee of the day while out on the patio having a smoke I watched a gecko trundling off to sleep the day away after a successful night hunting bugs on the screen of my back window. Eat, drink, sleep, wake, repeat…. The gecko even seemed to look contented. I vowed to not spray insecticide where he lives. Beauty waxes and wanes and the wheel keeps on turning. Who needs a vital center? I don’t, and you shouldn’t.

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